Like Dirty Dancing, but on Bikes

We all have our own versions of THAT summer from our youth. Glory days spent at some crazy Dirty Dancing-like summer camp, or backpacking and hitchhiking across the country, or maybe just working at the right place at the right time with the right group of people.  They are idyllic memories of inordinate amounts of fun, silliness and debauchery crammed into a discrete chunk of time and experienced with a group of characters who are still fondly remembered but likely now strewn about the country or maybe even the globe. I recently stumbled upon some old photos from just such a time with such a story with just such players.

That summer of 1999 was not my first spent at the Outdoor Program Centre, but it was one of the best. Working there involved maintaining and repairing a huge assortment of outdoor adventure rental gear and saving up enough money for your next term, your next trip, or your next pro-deal discounted gear purchase. Shorts, flip-flops and a t-shirt were the standard uniform; there was always music playing; we got to spend a good deal of time outside; and the hot summer temperatures were conquered with slushies that could be had a mere 2 minute walk away. Above all, the people were amazing. It was a wide cross-section to say the least, consisting of an eclectic ménage of adventurous, creative, interesting and fun characters and clowns.

During slow periods it was not uncommon to find people swinging Tarzan-like from climbing ropes fixed to the ceiling, meant for suspending and drying wet tents. Nor was it unusual to see how many fully inflated white water rafts could be stacked upon one another while checking them for leaks, or to then clamber up to the top one for a quick snooze during a break. There were bins of life jackets large enough to climb into like a kids plastic ball pit, where you could bury yourself and be sufficiently concealed to scare the bejesus out of the next co-worker reaching in to grab one for a rental order. The adult-sized baby jumper was a classic. Constructed out of discarded bike inner tubes it required donning a climbing harness and climbing on top of a step-ladder to clip into it, before jumping off for a good adult-sized bounce.

Most often the shenanigans at OPC led to great fun, but sometimes they turned bad, like when a co-worker needed to get stitches after I accidentally stabbed him in the arm while we were constructing white water river boogie boards out of foam. But usually things turned out much better, and it was out of this womb of silliness and ingenuity that the Wednesday Night Rides was born. That and the boredom of staying open really late every Wednesday night with nothing else to do while waiting for the kayakers returning from their weekly group paddle.

I’m not sure exactly how the actual bike racing part started, but it likely evolved from fun “test” rides taken on the odd collection of bikes we arrived at work on or had lying about the shop. Most of us rode standard road or mountain bikes, so even the bmx bike we had was somewhat unusual for us, but there was also a low rider with monkey bars, a really old department store 10-speed, and a custom hybrid monster that had a 29-inch rear wheel and a 20-inch front wheel and a set of cow-horn style bars. For the latter, instead of mounting brakes on those homemade handlebars we ran a cable from the head tube along the top tube, and looped it through the caliper of the rear brake. In order to slow that chimera beast down you had to reach between your legs, grasp the cable and pull up hard on it, exactly the way you used to have to pull down on the cable to indicate your stop on public buses. It was awesome, but you had to be so careful riding it because the small front wheel lowered the cranks which meant running the risk of a pedal hitting the ground while leaning into turns.

I don’t remember a lot of specifics about the evolution of the race details either, but I know it quickly got to the point where there were racers, timers, and always a few general bystanders cheering us on. Just after dark someone would volunteer to be the course designer and would head out for a walk. They would mark some of the course with traffic cones and utilise other local features such as sidewalks, parked cars, statues, and trees. The bike would be chosen, and each rider would get a pre-ride and then we would all do one timed lap. If we liked the course another round of competition would follow on the same course but on a different bike, or a new course designer would step up and the fun would begin anew.

The starting line would be the threshold of the shop door where the rider would enter the night, passing the timer sitting in a chair with their stopwatch and clipboard. Sometimes the other riders would stand there also waiting for their turns, or they would go out to strategic points on the course to cheer, do a little recon, or sometimes for a photo-op. You see, there were often pictures taken, and very often in the dark background of those pictures, if you were to look closely, you would be able to make out the image of a man with his pants down. The impromptu mooning somehow became a thing. Like it or not, it was just part of the racing.

The more popular course routes would involve riding at full speed through the legs of a giant stringy statue of a speed skater outside of the oval, or bombing down the loading dock ramp only to have to pull a tight turn around a pylon at the bottom and then mash on the pedals to try to pedal back up. Sometimes small Napoleon Dynamite-esque jumps were cleared, curbs were hopped, or heads were ducked while we sped under and narrowly missed sloping concrete arches coming off the oval building.

The races also went rain or shine, so lucky for us we had a plethora of wet jackets for kayaking, knee and elbow pads for rollerblading, and helmets for white water rafting that we repurposed into rain gear and armour for the inevitable wet asphalt slide outs and crashes.

Sometimes our creativity would get the better of us and we would end up trying to do something stupid like race with rollerblades on. Not ON the rollerblades though, no, we were still on the bikes. If you’ve never tried pedaling a bmx bike with rollerblades on, don’t bother, it’s stupid hard. And the thought that you would be able to put your skate down in a hard corner and balance on the rollerblade wheels to really whip through the turn with never-before-seen smoothness, precision and grace, is simply not true.

The Wednesday night bike races went on for the better part of four months. Each week a winner would be determined for each course and bike combination, but nothing accumulated, no records were kept, no trophies awarded. There was not even mild concern with bragging rights. But it was that kind of pure innocent fun that can only arise organically and can never be exactly replicated. And the best part is that the Wednesday night bike races, as indicative as they are, are still only one part of what that summer was as a whole.

See......pants down

On the home stretch. And for some reason I'm wearing white latex gloves.

The low rider

The course designer and support crew

Running the speed skater gauntlet

Some of the core group (I've got the yellow knee pads)

The start line

The final corner.......and another bum. Notice we were nice enough to protect the back corner of some guy's car with a spare pfd.

I’m TOTALLY best friends with Ryder Hesjedal. Right?

Towards the end of May my wife, son and I travelled to Victoria so I could take part in Ryder Hesjedal’s Tour de Victoria ride. It is a gran fondo type of supported mass participation ride (not a race) with Ryder Hesjedal as a participant, figure-head, and organiser. Ryder is Canadian; he is one of my favorite professional cyclists; he rides for one of my favorite cycling teams, Garmin Cervelo; and this was the inaugural event; so it all had a real air of excitement for me. It was also a perfect excuse for a family vacation to beautiful Vancouver Island. My decision to participate had been easy, but trying to decide whether I should register for the 90 or 140 km ride was tough because the furthest I had ever ridden before was 105 km. Additionally, since it was happening in May and I live in Calgary, I knew I would only be able to ride outside a few times beforehand for training. Regardless, I had registered for the 140 km ride thinking it would be great motivation for training over the winter, when I otherwise find indoor training quite unattractive due to intense and overwhelming boredom.

Upon our arrival in Victoria I learned that the Tour de Victoria was actually part of a larger event, the Victoria International Cycling Festival. We did a little research into it and the next day made our way to watch a Grand Prix race where riders race around a short 900 metre loop through Victoria’s historic Bastion Square. There were thousands of fans gathered and cheering. It was very exciting to take in, and my eager but nervous anticipation grew for the ride the next day.

After one of the races, my wife and I watched with delight as a bunch of little tykes gathered on the course for the Tim Hortons Timbits Challenge. I was immediately overcome with wishful images of my son doing this one day soon. Some of the kids were on push bikes, some had training wheels, and some were on two wheels, but all were unbelievably cute with big helmets bulging over little round faces with nervous smiles. And then Ryder showed up. What a guy. He rode with those kids as they raced their little hearts out around the 900 metre course, encouraging them, egging them on, helping sort out the inevitable random tangled messes of wee bikes that occurred, and bringing smiles to the faces of the little would-be racers and fans alike.

Ryder rounds the corner in third

Ryder knocks 'em flying trying to retake the lead

It was a rough night’s sleep and morning arrived very slowly. As my family slept I quietly ate my pre-ride meal, applied some chamois cream, donned my gear – including my favourite 24 Hours of Adrenaline jersey – and headed to the starting area.  At these types of rides you can cede yourself according to how long you think it will take you to finish. If you’ve trained and are confident in your fitness you might cede yourself at the front, which in this case, would allow you to ride alongside (well, at least near) Ryder. As much as I would have liked to ride with one of my sports heroes, I knew I would be unceremoniously dropped by the end of the first block. Unsure of what to expect I ceded (maybe conceded?) myself to finish the event in 7 hours. This put me in the very back of several thousand riders; part of a ragtag group seemingly composed of the old, the overweight, the injured, those on heavy or very upright bikes, and the unsure newbies (me). If we were a great herd of caribou, certainly the wolves would pick us off first.

I had the pre-ride jitters which amplified the briskness of the cold morning air, and I just stood there shivering and fiddling with my bike computer, waiting for the start. Though I was starting near the back of that slowest group, I could not believe the pace as we rolled out. It felt really fast. Once my nerves wore off, I warmed up to it and soon I was passing people and leapfrogging ahead, crossing the gaps between groups of riders. After about 45 minutes of this I settled in to a consistent pace with one bunch, taking my turns pulling at the front and rotating through a bit of a pace line. Things were going better than expected and I felt great. I was definitely in a happy place.

As time and kilometres passed, I could feel my lack of long distance training rides creeping in. My knees were achy and I was sorely underprepared for the rain that we rode in for at least an hour. I was wet and dirty and chilled to the bone, but the many supportive bystanders and volunteers cheering along the route, and the long line of upbeat cyclists around me, really helped to keep me going. I drank my water, ate my energy snacks and just kept turning my pedals as the beautiful scenery slipped by in my periphery.

Although it was not a race, we had been given time chips for two timed sections. One was a hill climb that had passed early in the ride and the other was a 12 km time trial in the last leg of the race. As sore as my knees were when I hit the time trial, and despite a thickening fog of fatigue, the realisation that I stood a chance of coming in under 5 hours led me to start hammering a little harder on the pedals. I felt invigorated; I kept my speed as high as I could and decided to carry it through to the end. At one point I was so into it that I massively overshot a tight left turn, locking up my rear tire and skidding embarrassingly into the curb.

I crossed the finish line in 5 hours and 3 minutes. Although I had never ridden this course before and my predicted time had been little more than a shot in the dark, I felt as celebratory as if I had just smashed a long-established personal best by two hours. It was certainly not a bad start to the season. My wife and son had been cheering for me when I arrived and I could tell my wife was as proud of me as I was. The salmon filet burger that I soon got with my food ticket seemed like the best I had ever tasted. I was no longer riding my bike but I was certainly riding the post event high. You can click here for the full ride details from my Garmin, but as a summary:

  • On the first timed section, the Munns Road 3.6 km Hill Climb, Ryder had the fastest time at 7:32, and I had the 190th fastest at 12:53 (of 502 people, but hey, it wasn’t a race, right?).
  • On the Waterfront 12 km Time Trial, Ryder’s time of 16:05 was only bested by one other person, and my time of 25:09 was only bested by 248 other people (of 950, but hey, it still wasn’t a race).  The number of participants grew from one timed section to the next because the 90 km group bypassed the hill climb, whereas all riders did the time trial section.
  • I have no idea if he finished first (I will assume and proclaim yes), but I do know from his published ride stats that Ryder crossed the line in 3:57, a full hour and some ahead of me.
  • I had a ton of fun.

We lingered around the finish line for a while, checking out the crazy expensive bikes, eating some more of the local fare, watching the last riders coming in, and just breathing in the sea air and the vibrant atmosphere. I love that moment when a ride is done and you look around to see everyone – the riders, the volunteers and the family and friends alike – smiling and laughing and swapping their stories; everyone sharing in the pure satisfaction of hard work, perseverance, achievement and fun.

The next day I went out for a ride on my own to stretch my legs and experience riding in Victoria at a more casual pace. I was very content, cruising along Dallas road on a sunny day with the ocean at my side, when I noticed a pair of cyclists heading in the opposite direction on the other side of the road. The blue helmet, the black carbon Cervelo bike, the black Garmin kit……..”holy chromoly,” I thought, “I think that’s Ryder!” My mind whirled into action and I hit my brakes, looking for a break in the steady flow of traffic. One came and I pulled a u-turn in a very inappropriate place, darting across the road. The chase was on. I hadn’t ridden with Ryder the day before, but if that was him, I sure as hell was going to today. I was in full fan stalker mode.

I don’t have a power meter, but I would hazard a guess that I was putting out a good solid 1300 watts for the next few seconds (well, okay, maybe 350, but you get the point!). Aided by the fact that Ryder and his partner were no doubt returning from a long training ride and were biking at a very casual pace, I soon caught up to them. Sure enough, I could see the tiny letters on the side of his helmet spelling it out for me: H-E-S-J-E-D-A-L.  I started riding behind them, agonising over what to say. Coming up with nothing better, but realising my opportunity could be easily wasted, I went with “Hey Ryder, haven’t you ridden enough lately?” Lame, but what can you do? Thankfully, he and his riding partner were both really nice guys, and chatted willingly with me as we rode together. I told them how great I thought the ride had been and how much I had underestimated my time. I asked about the cycling in the area and commented how nice it seemed. I could easily have sung Ryder’s praises, stating how I was a big fan and I was in awe of his performance at the Tour de France the previous year and his spirited climbing attacks at the Tour of California a few weeks earlier, but I refrained. I had my cell phone so I could have asked for a picture, but I refrained on that too. I was utterly content that I had been able to ride alongside and have a casual conversation with one of my favourite professional cyclists, and I had no problem leaving it at that. I thanked them both for taking the time and peeled off before overstaying my welcome.

I had seen Ryder the previous two days, and I had thought that was pretty cool. I had been nowhere near fit enough to ride with him, but I had secretly hoped that I would be able to one day. Wow, what a weekend.

I don't have a power meter, but the heart rate says it all!